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The first 'Oxford Companion to English Literature' was published in 1932 under the editorial direction of Sir Paul Harvey (no relation the American radio commentator). Half a century and five editions later, this is still a standard, authoritative reference work necessary for scholars and interested non-experts alike.
Under the editorship of Margaret Drabble, author and biographer (known for 'The Witch of Exmoor' and the more recently published 'The Peppered Moth'), this volume remains faithful to Harvey's intention of placing English literature in its widest possible context while exploring the deep classical and continental connections that underpin much of the history.
How can literature be divorced from cultural context? Surely it cannot be -- hence the newest entries into the edition include topics that read as if they were taken from today's best-seller shelf:
- Anglo-Indian Literature - Simon Armitage - Kate Atkinson - Louis de Bernieres - Censorship - Ben Elton - Gay and lesbian literature - Hypertext - A. L. Kennedy - Lad's literature - Literature of science - New Criticism - New Irish Playwrights - Carol Shields - Travel writing
This sample listing of the latest entries is representative of the more established categories, in that the entries (encyclopedic in character) include articles under the broad headings of Authors, Subjects, Titles, Events, Characters and Critical Theory. The entries are unsigned (an ever-controversial practice in reference works such as this) -- well over a hundred contributors assisted in this volume, including the likes of Matthew Sweet, Salman Rushdie, Ceridwen Lloyd-Morgan, Katherine Duncan-Jones, and Brian Vickers. Of the new articles, Margaret Drabber penned at least one-third; however, again these are unsigned.
This volume serves the general reader well in that one may follow cross-reference trails through the text. Take, for instance, the reference 'Aaron the Moor' -- the reader will be directed to 'Titus Andronicus', to which one is directed to 'Shakespeare', and from there a host of other cross-references historical and modern. Under the entry of 'Gabriel Josipovici', one is led back the entries of Rabelais and Bellow, influences as well as objects of Josipovici's study.
The appendices are new features of this edition. The first appendix is a Chronology that lists the chronology of the production of English literature from c.1000 to 1999 side by side with major historical events in Britain and beyond, and the significant events in the lives of literary figures. Appendix 2 lists the Poets Laureate in chronological order, from 1619 (when the office unofficially began) to the present -- surprisingly, there have only been 21 (19 official). Appendix 3 lists major literary award winners: Nobel Prize, Pulitzer Prize, Library Association Carnegie Medalists, and Booker-McConnell Prize for Fiction. Obviously not all of these are British authors, but it helps to place British literature in the wider world context of the twentieth century (as all of these prizes are twentieth-century creations).
In addition to the encyclopedic entries, there are major essays scattered through the text. These include the following topics: Biography; Black British Literature; Children's Literature; Detective Fiction; Fantasy Fiction; Ghost Stories; Gothic Fiction; Historical Fiction; Metre; Modernism; Post-Colonial Literature; Romanticism; Science Fiction; Spy Fiction; Structuralism and Post-Structuralism. There are sixteen in all; up two from the previous edition (which was their first appearance), several have been rewritten or updated.
These essays include history and current development of the genre or topic, as well as bibliographic information for further research, which (regrettably) the smaller encyclopedic entries rarely have.
Like any reference book that deals with areas subject to rapid change, the modern literature section is missing a few key elements. For example, there is no entry for the wildly popular J.K. Rowling, nor is she (or her creation, Harry Potter) mentioned in the sections on Children's literature or Fantasy literature. This is due to the fact that this edition went to press prior to the great popularity of this author and book series. The next edition will certainly include the necessary references, but it is the nature of texts like this to be somewhat out of date even as they roll off the printing presses.
Weighing in at nearly 1200 pages, this is a monumental work. The print is a bit on the small side (nothing like the Oxford English Dictionary two-volume edition; magnifying glasses are not required here), but the layout is easy to follow, standard for late style academic work, and allowing enough space to be able to follow the text easily.
This is a terrific, one-volume reference that should serve well anyone with a need for quick and ready reference material. It should find a welcome home on the shelf of any avid reader, fan of literature and modern fiction, history, religion, or any devoted Anglophile.
I have an old copy of this, I think. A great in-depth review that I'm sure is far more informative than Amazon's.
MAFARRIMOND 12.03.2005 19:49
I have a copy. A useful reference book. Maureen
elkiedee 07.03.2005 23:20
Because my grandparents worked for OUP, I grew up with earlier versions of this work. You describe it as expensive - what's the cover price now? I picked it up at quite a reasonable price through a bookclub, and I imagine it's the kind of volume which gets quite a few sales that way these days. Luci